Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What is Conservatism?

I don't know how many people have been following the recent debates on Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog about the dustup between Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele, and the future of conservatism.

I've been reading with great interest, but not commenting as much as usual. As a student of political science--I was a good lit. major. Which is a nice way of saying that the deeper books about political theory and the history of political movements escaped me completely; I'm a complete novice in the field, and rarely venture into heated arguments that try to hash out the pedigree of modern American conservatism and thus forecast its inevitable future.

All I can say, from the vantage point of an observer, is that the various voices of conservatism, mostly content to work together within the Republican party up to now (though not necessarily accepting the GOP as a perfect fit for their ideas, just accepting the expedient fact that the other party has no room in their "big tent" for conservatism at all) have turned on each other as each seeks to blame the other for the recent election's dismal results, and that they are engaged in the simultaneous effort to tear down the others while positioning themselves as the "true voices" of conservatism who alone can lead the way out of the morass of the present and into the future.

It was bound to happen, of course. Even before the election there were rumblings: the social conservatives were to blame for their pro-life, anti-gay marriage views; no, wait, it was the moderates with their moderate support of moderate baby-killing; no, wait, it was all Sarah Palin's fault; no, wait...

But now the various factions are beginning to coalesce, and to find their voices--and their spokesmen. I suppose that it was inevitable that there would be a "talk radio-style conservatism" with Limbaugh at its head; but the sheer nastiness on both sides as one side rejects Limbaugh's "brand" of conservatism as too populist and anti-intellectual, and the other rejects the critics as too enamored of Obama, of Ivy-League credentials and east coast snobbery to be able to relate to ordinary Americans, is a little surprising.

I'm sure that some of this is probably healthy. But if it's too protracted, or it splits conservatives into too many subgroups, then no matter how bad the economy gets or how much socialism Obama enacts or even how generally inept he may turn out to be, there will be no chance to nominate a conservative to replace him.

Some may wonder, given that our only choice as conservatives thus far has been to work with the GOP, whether it was ever possible to nominate a conservative again. Certainly John McCain wasn't a "conservative" candidate, was he? The people at CPAC seem to think that Mitt Romney is a "real" conservative, if their presidential preference straw poll is any indication--but during the last election lots of conservatives rejected Romney, preferring to support either Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee as men who were each more conservative than Romney.

This is where I think conservatives, both inside and outside the Republican party, need to seize the opportunity to have a national conversation about what conservatism is, what it would mean to have and to advance a conservative political agenda, and what a truly conservative leader would look like. Instead of each faction advancing a "champion" and then loudly defending their champion while destroying the other factions' heroes, we could be talking about just what we stand for, how our ideas are different from those of liberalism, and, most importantly of all, what it is we're trying to conserve.

I think, quite honestly, that in the recent past conservatism has become associated too much with money. I don't mean in the sense that some people draw the simplistic equation: conservative = Republican = country club, but rather the idea that conservatives are all about material success, making money and keeping it, fighting for tax cuts and spurning the legitimate needs of their fellow men.

This isn't an accurate portrayal of what conservatism is, but I can see why some have reached this conclusion. Aside from the reality that this is how the media presents conservatives--as greedy, selfish people concerned only with amassing ever more wealth at the expense of all the poor homeless unemployed people from the approved politically correct categories--there is the undeniable element within conservatism of what we might call "bootstrapism," the philosophy that success, material success, in large quantities is equally available to all Americans and that all we really need is for the government to get out of our way--and that this is fundamentally what conservatism is all about.

The bootstrapist conservatives seem to believe that it is conservative to want to be rich, and further, that it is conservative to place that goal at the forefront of one's objectives, above such concerns as faith, family, community, home and the like. It's the conservatism that seems to want to conserve Hummers and McMansions, and that would view a teacher and his wife living on $35,000 a year so she can stay home with the children almost pityingly, as if the only possible reason anyone would ever choose to do this was because this person was an underachiever who would never have amounted to anything anyway.

I see the bootstrapist element as having defined much of conservatism in the recent past; now, having lost an election, lost control of Congress, and lost face, they're fighting to make sure that their notion of conservatism doesn't get swept aside.

Unfortunately, the bootstrapists were also the ones who loudly celebrated their triumphs when the Dow climbed past 10,000 and when the housing market made people into overnight millionaires. This, they crowed, was proof of the virtue of their ideas--left alone, the market would make everybody rich, and the sourpuss naysayers on the left would have to realize that only the lazy, the criminal, the unambitious and the underachievers would fail. Which was too bad, of course, but it was their own fault for not seizing hold of the American dream when they had the chance.

But the tide has turned, the wealth is evaporating, and bootstrapism is a less-appealing side of conservatism (if it can even be called that, except by its own champions) than ever.

So it's time to talk about what else conservatism is. It's time to talk about what it is to that teacher and his wife in my fictional example above. It's time to talk about what it is to small farmers, to middle-class suburban Americans, to the poor in inner cities. If conservatism as a political philosophy is going to inspire, uplift, inform, and form, then it has to be something that matters to each of these people, not just to wealthy entrepreneurs and wealthy political figures.

We know what liberalism promises and offers. We know the liberal vision, that people do not need God or morality, that all they need is an all-encompassing government that will pay for them from cradle to grave, fund their education, subsidize their jobs, take away all worries at the price of their freedom. In the short term the liberal vision is to create newer and bigger and more powerful government, to take over health care, to mandate various approvals of immorality from gay marriage to forced participation in abortions even by those who object to them, even, perhaps, to encourage euthanasia. We know that the liberal notion is that any money a person earns really belongs to the government (or to the "collective") and that the benevolent government allows him to keep some portion of it after it decides how much of it the government needs to pay for its pet projects and advance its ambitious agendas.

So the question, "What is Conservatism?" needs to be answered in the light of all of that. For too long the answer has centered so much around the money aspects that even so-called "conservatives" have pretended that it is possible to be conservative while believing in abortion, in government-funded contraception programs aimed at our children, in gay marriage, and the like. It has long been my view that without social conservatism you don't really have "conservatism;" what you have is a kind of progressive with a little bit of financial caution as a characteristic.

What is conservatism? What are its aims, its goals? And when the various Republican factions have fought out their differences, what of conservatism will remain within the party--if any of it will?


Rachel said...


I really like your blog. Great stuff. And I love the Mason Cooley quote. I feel compelled to write about all sorts of things too because then I feel I have gotten 'it' out.

Here is an interesting new site I found. It's kind of the civil answer to the Daily Kos. It's called Daily Tol (Tol meaning Tree of Liberty). I think the url is


Anonymous said...

I think you're confusing conservatism with elitism. We've all seen the elitism in liberal circles, almost as a part of that ideology's DNA, but I recently have seen elitism in so-called conservatives.

It was most apparent with the vicious attacks on Sarah Palin from supposedly conservative columnists like Peggy Noonan, Kathleen Parker and William Buckley Jr.

Conservatives believe in God. They take responsibility for their actions. They believe central government's job is to protect them from force and fraud but to otherwise leave them alone.

Conservatives believe that you have the potential to be whatever you want to be if you have the smarts, the drive and a little luck. They believe you can also choose your own comfort level and not earn as much money of you don't want to.

Conservatives believe that everyone ought to be treated fairly, and by fairly they don't mean equally. Fairly means that you are taxed reasonably for the services that are allowed under the Constitution. We don't want rich people unfairly taxed because we believe that we might be rich some day.

Conservatives understand that lightly restricted capitalism is the engine that drives a vibrant economy. Conservatives understand this because they do not deny human nature (like liberals), they use it. Envy, avarice and greed drives conservatives to greater heights of monetary success, and a rising tide raises all boats.

j. christian said...

A friend of mine wrote this on a recent blog entry:

All I see are progressives: some just happen to look to the past instead of the future and call it "conservatism" ― as if they know that what they are preserving is, in some objective sense, "good."

His point is that most "conservatives" are just a different stripe of progressive; the reason being that neither ideology understands that there must be first principles as foundations to their philosophies. It's just one, big tug-of-war with one ideology trying to assert its dominance over the other. All is about power struggle. Sounds like Marx, no? Why are "conservatives" playing a Marxian game?

If we were to return to first principles and understand natural right the way the Founders did, we might regain some sense of "true" conservatism. Until then, many "conservatives" are just liberals/libertarians afraid to admit what they really are.

Dymphna said...

I do know one thing. I don't want any part of Rod's nose in the air brand of conservatism. I guess I'm part of the mongoloid right he sniffs about.

Anonymous said...

This is what conservatism is to the socialist academic.

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world

Come on. It's a 'no brainer' in most academic circles.


Anonymous said...

I don't get how a Catholic can be conservative or acknowledge 'mental illness' in a secular context.

Example' The Church, as we speak loves the 'open border'.